Understanding the Roman Curia

In a famous exchange between Pope St. John XXIII and the press after his election in 1958, the saintly pope supposedly was asked how many people work in the Roman Curia. He thought for a moment and replied, “About half.”

The joke has been repeated for many years and has fed into the image perpetuated by the media of the Curia as a vast network of entrenched and self-serving careerists who resist any reform or change.

But what, really, is the Roman Curia?

The Roman Curia is the central government of the Church that assists the pope in his universal governance and his service to the people of God. More solemnly, in the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Bishops, it was declared that the departments of the Roman Curia “perform their duties in his [the pope’s] name and with his authority for the good of the churches and in the service of the sacred pastors.”

The name “curia” is taken from the Latin word meaning “court,” and just as every diocese and archdiocese has a chancery or diocesan curia, the Holy See also has a central staff. The work is incredibly varied as different departments, or dicasteries, manage the diplomatic life of the Church and the appointment of new bishops, protect the authenticity of Church teachings and education, plan the pope’s trips, draft his many documents and decrees, guide the Church’s communications efforts and direct the enormous task of proclaiming the Gospel from Africa and Asia to the uncharted territories of the Internet.

There is a tradition of referring to the “Vatican” as synonymous with the Roman Curia or even the Holy See. While understandable in its use, technically the “Vatican” refers to the 108.7-acre Vatican City State first established in 1929 in the famous Lateran Treaty between Pope Pius XI and Italy.

Pope Francis attends an annual Lenten spiritual retreat in Ariccia, Italy, Feb. 22, with members of the Roman Curia. CNS photo

As the name would suggest, the Curia began literally as the small papal court and evolved gradually over the centuries until 1588 when Pope Sixtus V gave it a formal organizational structure. The skeleton of offices and departments he created has remained into modern times, with many popes introducing various changes and reforms.

Today, the Curia consists of secretariats, congregations (the main governing agencies), tribunals or judicial agencies, pontifical councils and committees and several financial offices.

Contrary to the media image of a vast and secretive Vatican bureaucracy, the staff working for the Holy See is surprisingly small.

Only about 3,000 people, from numerous countries, work in the departments and offices and in the mundane support jobs at the Vatican and across Rome.

John XXIII’s joke about the workers in the Curia notwithstanding, the vast majority of members are not corrupt, lazy or self-serving. Most of them are laypeople with families who receive benefits like any other workers, including health care, pensions, vacations and the ability to offset the high cost of Roman living with access to the Vatican stores, pharmacy and post office.

Similarly, the lives of the priests who labor in Rome also are far from glamorous or opulent. There have been bad examples, of course, but the Curia’s workers — both lay and religious — are almost all professional, love the Church and serve with a genuine sense of mission, and they support the current efforts at reform and renewal first started by Pope Benedict XVI and now being pushed forward by Pope Francis.

SECRETARIATS | Influential Curial offices

  • Secretariat of State

    Founded: 15th century
    Secretary of State: Cardinal Pietro Parolin (Italy); he is assisted by Archbishop Giovanni Becciu (Italy), Deputy for General Affairs, and Archbishop Paul Gallagher (Great Britain), Secretary for Relations with States

    The Secretariat of State serves two key functions for the pope:
    ◗ The Section for General Affairs assists the pope in the day-to-day business of the Holy See.
    ◗ The Section for Relations with States directs all aspects of papal diplomacy.

  • Secretariat for the Economy

    Founded: 2014
    President: Cardinal George Pell (Australia)

    The newest department oversees financial control over the Roman Curia as well as Vatican City State. It is answerable to the Council for the Economy.

  • secretariats

CONGREGATIONS | The highest level of Vatican dicastery (department), typically led by a cardinal

  • Doctrine of the Faith


    Founded: 1542, called the Office of the Inquisition and then the Holy Office
    Prefect: Cardinal Gerhard Müller (Germany)

    Safeguards Church doctrine and morals. Oversees the Pontifical Biblical Commission International Theological Commission, and “Ecclesia Dei.”

  • Oriental Churches


    Founded: 1862
    Prefect: Cardinal Leonardo Sandri (Argentina)

    Deals with the concerns and needs of all Eastern Catholics around the world.

  • Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments


    Founded: 1975 when the Congregation of Rites (founded in 1588) and the Congregation for Divine Worship (founded in 1969) were combined
    Prefect: Cardinal Robert Sarah (Guinea)

    Promotes and regulates the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church.

  • Causes of Saints


    Founded: 1588, as the Congregation of Rites
    Prefect: Cardinal Angelo Amato, S.D.B. (Italy)

    Manages the process of saints’ causes, including beatifications and canonizations. It is also in charge of preserving relics.

  • Bishops


    Founded: 1588
    Prefect: Cardinal Marc Ouellet P.S.S. (Canada)

    Pontifical Commission for Latin America,Manages the process of appointing new ones as well as the required visits of the world’s bishops to Rome every five years. Attached: Pontifical Commission for Latin America, instituted in 1958.

  • Evangelization of Peoples


    Founded: 1622, called the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith
    Prefect: Cardinal Fernando Filoni (Italy)

    Coordinates missionary work throughout the world. Its prefect is traditionally called the “Red Pope” because of the enormity of his global duties.

  • Clergy


    Founded: 1564
    Prefect: Cardinal Beniamino Stella (Italy)

    Guides the life, discipline, rights and duties of the clergy, including the preaching of the Word and catechetics.

  • Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life

    Braz de Aviz

    Founded: 1586
    Prefect: Cardinal João Bráz de Aviz (Brazil)

    Watches over religious institutes, secular institutes, societies of the apostolic life and third orders.

  • Catholic Education


    Founded: 1915 (combining the work of other departments dating back to 1588)
    Prefect: Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi (Italy)

    Guides seminaries, Catholic universities and faculties of study and Catholic schools below the college-university level.

PONTIFICAL COUNCILS | The pontifical councils were created in the years after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) to meet the changing needs of the Church in the modern world.

  • Laity


    Founded: 1967
    President: Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko (Poland)

    Covers the apostolate of the laity and their participation in the life and mission of the Church.

  • Justice and Peace


    Founded: 1967
    President: Cardinal Peter Turkson (Ghana)

    Promotes justice and peace in the world according to the Gospels and social teachings of the Church.

  • Family


    Founded: 1981
    President: Abp. Vincenzo Paglia (Italy)

    Promotes the pastoral care of families.

  • Promoting Christian Unity


    Founded: 1966
    President: Cardinal Kurt Koch (Switzerland)

    Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews Handles relations with members of other Christian ecclesial communities. Attached: Commissions for Religious Relations with the Jews

  • Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples


    Founded: 1970, made autonomous in 1980
    President: Cardinal Antonio Maria Vegliò (Italy)

    Promotes pastoral assistance to migrants, nomads, tourists and travelers.

  • Interpretation of Legislative Texts


    Founded: 1984
    President: Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio (Italy)

    Presides over the authentic interpretation of the universal laws of the Church.

  • Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers


    Founded: 1985
    President: Abp. Zygmunt Zimowski (Poland)

    Serves the many international Catholic organizations in the health care field.

  • Interreligious Dialogue


    Founded:1964, as the Secretariat for Non‑Christians
    President: Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran (France)

    Commission for Religious Relations with MuslimsPromotes dialogue and respect between Christians and non-Christians. Attached:

  • Promoting the New Evangelization


    Founded: 2010
    President: Archbishop Salvatore “Rino” Fisichella (Italy)

    Advances the great project of the New Evangelization.

  • Social Communications


    Founded: 1948 on an experimental basis; made a permanent commission in 1959
    President: Abp. Claudio Maria Celli (Italy)

    Studies all matters pertaining to instruments of social communications.

  • Culture


    Founded: 1993 (in the merger of the Pontifical Councils for Culture and Dialogue with Non-Believers)
    President: Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi (Italy)

    Deals with faith and culture and dialogue with cultures, including nonbelievers.

  • “Cor Unum”


    Founded: 1971
    President: Vacant

    Coordinates services for worldwide Catholic aid and human development organizations.

TRIBUNALS | The Holy See is supported by three important courts:

  • Apostolic Penitentiary

    Founded: 12th century, reorganized in 1569
    Major Penitentiary: Cardinal Mauro Piacenza (Italy)

    Concerned with questions of conscience, absolution and some matters pertaining to indulgences.

  • Apostolic Signatura

    Founded: 15th century
    Prefect: Cardinal Dominique Mamberti (France)

    The supreme court of the Church and the supreme court of the State of Vatican City.

  • Roman Rota

    Founded: 12th century
    Dean: Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto (Italy)

    The ordinary court of appeal for cases appealed to the Holy See, especially the validity of marriage.

OFFICES | Several offices provide key direction to the economic life of the Holy See, as well as advice to Pope Francis:

  • Council of Cardinals to assist in the governance of the Universal Church and to reform the Roman Curia

    Founded: 2013
    Coordinator: Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga (Honduras)

    Assists and advises the pope on reform and important matters in the Church.

  • Pontifical Commission for Reference on the Organization of the Economic -Administrative Structure of the Holy See

    Founded: 2013
    President: Joseph F.X. Zahra (Malta)

    Studies the organizational and economic problems of the Holy See.

  • Financial Security Committee

    Founded: 2013

    President: Msgr. Peter Wells (United States)

    Works to prevent laundering activities, financing of terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

  • Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA)

    Founded: 1878
    President: Cardinal Domenico Calcagno (Italy)

    The treasury of the Curia and the Vatican City State.

  • Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See

    Founded: 1967
    President: Vacant

    Supervised budgets and issued the annual financial report of the Holy See.

  • Institute for Works of Religion

    Founded: 1942
    President: Jean-Baptiste Douville de Franssu (France)

    The so-called Vatican Bank that administers funds for works of religion.

  • Council for the Economy

    Founded: 2014
    President: Cardinal Reinhard Marx (Germany)

    Assists with the oversight and reforms of the Holy See’s finances.


  • Apostolic Camera

    Founded: 11th century
    Camerlengo: Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran (France)

    Administers the temporal goods and rights of the Holy See between the death of one pope and the election of another (sede vacante).

  • Prefecture of the Papal Household

    Founded: 1588 as the Sacred Congregation for Ceremonies
    Prefect: Archbishop Georg Gänswein (Germany)

    Manages the daily life of the pope.

  • Office for Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff

    Founded: 1563: originally called Apostolic Master of Ceremonies
    Master of Ceremonies: Monsignor Guido Marini (Italy)

    Prepares liturgical and other sacred celebrations by the pope.

  • Office of Papal Charities (Apostolic Almoner)

    Founded: Developed before the 12th century; officially established under Pope Blessed Gregory X (1271-1276)
    Apostolic Almoner: Abp. Konrad Krajewski (Poland)

    Distributes alms and aid to those in need in the name of the pope.

  • Vatican Press Office

    Founded: 1968
    Director: Rev. Federico Lombardi, S.J. (Italy)

    The main press agency for the Holy See.

COMMISSIONS AND COMMITTEES | There are numerous institutes created for a particular purpose that assist in the work of the Holy See. These include:

  • Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church

    Founded: 1988
    President: Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi (Italy)

    Conserves and guards the vast historical and artistic patrimony of the Church.

  • Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archeology

    Founded: 1852
    President: Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi (Italy)

    Cares for and preserves the ancient sacred cemeteries and the basilicas in Rome.

  • Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors

    Founded: 2014
    President: Cardinal Sean O’Malley (United States)

    Assists the Church’s response to the clergy sex abuse scandal.

  • Commission for the Study of the Reform of the Matrimonial Processes in Canon Law

    Founded: 2014
    President: Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto (Italy)

    Studies questions related to the canonical matrimonial process.

  • Disciplinary Commission of the Roman Curia

    Founded: 1981
    President: Bishop Giorgio Corbellini (Italy)

    Maintains and imposes disciplinary measures for the members of the Roman Curia.

  • Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses

    Founded: 1879
    President: Archbishop Piero Marini (Italy)

    Directs the planning of Eucharistic Congresses around the world.

  • Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences

    Founded: 1954
    President: Father Bernard Ardura, O. Praem. (France)

    Promotes the development of the historical sciences.

  • Fabric of St. Peter

    Founded: 1908
    President: Cardinal Angelo Comastri (Italy)

    Administers, cares for and preserves the Vatican Basilica.

  • Labor Office of the Apostolic See

    Founded: 1989
    President: Bishop Giorgio Corbellini (Italy)

    Serves the need of those who work for the Holy See and settles labor issues.


  • Fine Arts and Letters (1542)

    Promotes the fine arts.

  • Sciences (1603)

    Promotes and honors scientific research.

  • Ecclesiastical Academy (1701)

    Trains Vatican diplomats.

  • Theology (1718)

    Promotes theological studies.

  • Archaeology (1810)

    Promotes Christian archeology and art.

  • Martyrs (1879)

    Promotes the veneration of martyrs.

  • St. Thomas Aquinas (1879)

    Promotes the study of Thomism.

  • Mary (1946)

    Promotes Mariology.

  • Life (1994)

    Promotes the Culture of Life.

  • Social Sciences (1994)

    Promotes the Social Sciences.

  • Latin (2012)

    Promotes the Latin language.

The Road to Reform

The reform of the Curia has been a major topic of discussion for the last years in both Catholic and secular media. Pope Benedict XVI began a process of reform, and he left it to his successor to complete the project. This was the mandate that Pope Francis inherited at the time of his election in March 2013.

One of his first steps was to appoint a special Commission of Cardinals — the so-called C-9 — to oversee the reform and serve as a “kitchen cabinet” of sorts to advise his pontificate.

In the coming year, the pope is expected to issue a document implementing the institutional reforms, for which members of the Council of Cardinals have worked together to craft the blueprint. The economic life of the Holy See already has been significantly reshaped.

Pope Francis began by tightening the Holy See’s financial governance by creating a new Secretariat for the Economy with authority over all economic activities within the Holy See and the Vatican City State. Each dicastery will have to submit financial reports, and the Secretariat will mandate sound management, transparency, accountability, training and prudent auditing.

Considerable speculation has surrounded what Francis and the Council of Cardinals are planning for the rest of the Curia. One idea is the possible creation of two congregations through the consolidation of several pontifical councils. One congregation would focus on the laity by combining the current councils for the laity and the family with a possible new council for women. The second would focus on issues of justice and life by bringing together the present councils on justice and peace, health care and migrants and refugees with a new council for ecology. Another theoretical change entails combining the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples with the councils for culture and the New Evangelization.

After an international task force reviewed the Vatican’s interlaced communications offices, Pope Francis, on April 23 and under the suggestion of the C-9, approved the establishment of a commission to weigh the recommendations of the final report. Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganὸ, director of the Vatican Television Center, will head the commission.

Regardless of the final form the changes take, Pope Francis has one very clear objective. He said to the members of the College of Cardinals in February:

“The reform is not an end in itself, but a means to give a strong Christian witness; to promote a more effective evangelization; to promote a more fruitful ecumenical spirit; to encourage a more constructive dialogue with all. The reform, strongly advocated by the majority of the cardinals in the context of the general congregations before the conclave, will further perfect the identity of the same Roman Curia, which is to assist the Successor of Peter in the exercise of his supreme pastoral office for the good of and in the service of the universal Church and the particular Churches. This exercise serves to strengthen the unity of faith and communion of the people of God and promote the mission of the Church in the world.”

Matthew Bunson is OSV’s senior correspondent.